William & Mary’s Couplin hungry for NFL shot

[PUBLISHER’S NOTE, MARCH 1, 2015: Former contributing writer Desmond Bailey wrote this story in 2014.]

With little more than a month remaining before the 2014 NFL Draft, the league is buzzing with news surrounding prospects projected to go in the early rounds.

Aug 31, 2013; Morgantown, WV, USA; William & Mary Tribe safety Jerome Couplin (4) makes a tackle on West Virginia Mountaineers running back Dreamius Smith (2) at Milan Puskar Stadium. Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 31, 2013; Morgantown, WV, USA; William & Mary Tribe safety Jerome Couplin (4) makes a tackle on West Virginia Mountaineers running back Dreamius Smith (2) at Milan Puskar Stadium. Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Up to this point, these players have enjoyed the spotlight and can rest assured their names will be called during the draft’s three-day process beginning May 8.

However, for Jerome Couplin III, a former safety for the College of William and Mary Tribe, the path to the draft so far has been one of initial disappointment, perseverance to triumph.

In 2013, Couplin accumulated 113 tackles (70 solo, 2.5 for loss), six pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery, which he returned 51 yards for a touchdown. His 5.8 solo tackles per game ranked 11th nationally and led all defensive backs in the Colonial Athletic Association league.

Furthermore, Couplin’s play on the field earned him unanimous first-team All-American honors from The Associated Press, The Sports Network, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Couplin was also selected as a finalist for the prestigious Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to college football’s best defensive player. However, he modestly deflects credit to teammates who helped him propel the Tribe to a No. 2 national ranking in scoring defense.

“There are only 20 guys in the nation who make that list, so it was an honor to see my talents and play were being recognized nationally,” Couplin said in a phone interview. “But I also know that our defense playing well is what helped me get noticed. I wasn’t out there by myself making plays. I had 10 other guys step up and do their jobs which helped me succeed.”

Nonetheless, despite his awards and accomplishments, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Couplin was surprisingly not invited to participate in any postseason all-star games or the NFL Scouting Combine.

“It was disappointing, but at the end of the day I knew those were matters that I couldn’t control,” Couplin explained. “I just continued to put the work in and continued to grind. It was more motivation for me that I didn’t get invited.”

That grind began on Jan. 6 at Chip Smith Performance Systems, in Norcross, Ga., where Couplin trained in preparation for his March 18 Pro Day.

Chip Smith is a speed/strength expert with 25 years of experience training athletes. He’s worked with more than 1,300 football players who signed pro contracts and currently has more than 300 clients on NFL rosters. When Couplin arrived to commence his training, Smith was immediately impressed.

“First of all, having grown up in the state of Virginia and knowing what type of academic institution William & Mary is, I knew he’d be an extremely bright and coachable young man,” Smith said in a phone interview. “He was also very explosive when we first tested and evaluated him.”

Smith put Couplin through a daily regimen specifically structured to enhance his athleticism and skills as a defensive back. The training entailed Couplin receiving intense coaching from former All-Pro NFL cornerback Ray Buchanan.

“I trained Ray when he was in the league and was his offseason speed coach,” Smith shared. “Now he’s my defensive backs coach and he worked closely with Jerome. They spent at least two hours a day doing DB drills and working on the blackboard.”

Couplin credits Buchanan for helping him vastly improve an area of weakness in his skillset.

“My footwork was something I really wanted to focus on,” Couplin said. “Footwork is key and I had the great honor to work on that with Ray Buchanan down in Georgia where I was training. After a while, I could see and feel the difference in how I was moving. Even my defensive coaches at William and Mary noticed the improvements in my footwork.”

Armed with refined technique and athletic form, Couplin finally got his chance to showcase his ability before NFL scouts at his Pro Day.

Despite rainy, 32-degree weather conditions, Couplin ran his 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, performed 18 reps on the 225-pound bench press, ran the short shuttle in 4.41 seconds and the three-cone drill in 6.94 seconds.

Couplin also posted a vertical jump of 41.5 inches and a broad jump of 11 feet and two inches. Those numbers would’ve tied for second and first overall, respectively, at the Combine where players enjoyed the cozy, indoor confines of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Moreover, the 40-yard dash, three-cone and bench press numbers by Couplin would have tied or bested two safeties projected as first-round picks in this year’s draft: Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Ha’Sean “Ha-Ha” Clinton Dix.

Yet, Couplin came away unhappy even with his superb workout.

“I’m not really satisfied with the numbers because those weren’t my personal bests,” Couplin shared. “My best in the vertical is a 43 and in the broad jump I’ve done 11-5. So I feel if I had better weather conditions, my numbers would’ve been better. But I’m still excited in terms of the recognition and the opportunity.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins were present at Couplin’s workout, according to William & Mary’s director of football operations Bill Cole.

However, another notable franchise later contacted Couplin about a possible role in their defense.

“The Seattle Seahawks talked to Jerome recently,” Couplin’s former defensive backs coach Tom Clark said in a phone interview. “They like his length, range, and speed. They told him he could play cornerback. I feel he can do it. He’s smart, extremely coachable and could definitely make that transition.”

Couplin certainly fits the profile of the Seahawks secondary, a unit notorious for size and intimidating physicality. On film, Couplin dishes out punishing hits and makes game-changing plays on the ball. His elite leaping ability and his extraordinary 80-inch wingspan make him an imposing presence in the defensive backfield.

“He’s very instinctive, is an outstanding tackler and makes great reads,” Clark said. “Those long arms give receivers and tight ends fits in coverage. He’s also a leader and his teammates feed off his energy and enthusiasm. Most of all, he’s an extremely hard worker and is eager to get better. He really goes all out when it comes to bettering himself as a football player.”

Still, even with interest from NFL teams, a recent Google search for scouting analysis on Couplin produced links to webpages listing his name and little else. Most draft-related sites have him projected as a priority free agent while others offer no projection at all.

Smith feels Couplin’s situation is akin to that of one of his former clients, NFL outside linebacker James Harrison.

Like Couplin, Harrison wasn’t invited to any postseason events as a prospect out of Kent State in 2002. But Harrison entered the league as an undrafted free agent and went on to earn multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. He also won two Super Bowl titles with the Steelers and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.

Smith foresees similar fortune for Couplin’s career.

“As good of a player as Jerome is, he’s a much better person,” Smith said. “He’s a dynamic young man. He’s so competitive and determined that you’d have to kill him to beat him. The scouts can measure his 40, vertical and strength. But they can’t measure his heart. Until they can, nobody can tell me Jerome can’t play in the league. That kid is going to play in the NFL and he’ll be a star if given an opportunity.”